Sugarcane refers to any of 6 to 37 species (depending on which taxonomic system is used) of tall perennial grasses of the genus Saccharum (family Poaceae, tribe Andropogoneae). Native to warm temperate to tropical regions of Asia, they have stout, jointed, fibrous stalks that are rich in sugar, and measure two to six meters (six to nineteen feet) tall. All sugar cane species interbreed, and the major commercial cultivars are complex hybrids.
Sugar cane products include table sugar, Falernum, molasses, rum, cachaça (the national spirit of Brazil), bagasse and ethanol.
Sugarcane is indigenous to tropical South Asia and Southeast Asia. Different species likely originated in different locations with S. barberi originating in India and S. edule and S. officinarum coming from New Guinea. Crystallized sugar was reported 5,000 years ago in India.
Sugarcane is still extensively grown in the Caribbean. Christopher Columbus first brought it during his second voyage to the Americas, initially to the island of Hispaniola (modern day Haiti and the Dominican Republic). In colonial times, sugar formed one side of the triangular trade of New World raw materials, European manufactures, and African slaves. France found its sugarcane islands so valuable, it effectively traded its portion of Canada, famously dubbed "a few acres of snow," to Britain for their return of Guadeloupe, Martinique and St. Lucia at the end of the Seven Years' War. The Dutch similarly kept Suriname, a sugar colony in South America, instead of seeking the return of the New Netherlands (New York). Cuban sugarcane produced sugar that received price supports from and a guaranteed market in the USSR; the dissolution of that country forced the closure of most of Cuba's sugar industry. Sugarcane remains an important part of the economy of Guyana, Belize, Barbados, Haiti, along with the Dominican Republic, Guadeloupe, Jamaica, and other islands.
Sugarcane production greatly influenced many tropical Pacific Islands, including Okinawa and, most particularly, Hawaiʻi and Fiji. In these islands, sugarcane came to dominate the economic and political landscape after the arrival of powerful European and American agricultural businesses, which promoted immigration of workers from various Asian countries to tend and harvest the crop. Sugar was the dominant factor in diversifying the islands' ethnic makeup, profoundly affecting their politics and society.
Today, sugarcane is grown in over 110 countries. In 2009 an estimated 1,683 million metric tons were produced worldwide which amounts to 22.4% of the total world agricultural production by weight. About 50 percent of production occurs in Brazil and India.
Around the eighth century A.D., Indian traders introduced sugar to the Mediterranean, Mesopotamia, Egypt, North Africa, and Andalusia. By the tenth century, sources state, there was no village in Mesopotamia that did not grow sugar cane. It was among the early crops brought to the Americas by the Andalusians (from their fields in the Canary Islands), and the Portuguese.
"Boiling houses" in the 17th through 19th centuries converted sugarcane juice into raw sugar. These houses were attached to sugar plantations in the western colonies. Slaves often ran the boiling process, under very poor conditions. Made of cut stone, rectangular boxes of brick or stone served as furnaces with an opening at the bottom to stoke the fire and remove ashes. At the top of each furnace were up to seven copper kettles or boilers, each one smaller and hotter than the previous one. The cane juice began in the largest kettle. The juice was then heated and lime added to remove impurities. The juice was skimmed, then channeled to successively smaller kettles. The last kettle, which was called the 'teache', was where the cane juice became syrup. The next step was a cooling trough, where the sugar crystals hardened around a sticky core of molasses. This raw sugar was then shoveled from the cooling trough into hogsheads (wooden barrels), and from there into the curing house.